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Identity Crisis, Colonization, and Psychoanalysis

Over the years, Latin American culture has been the subject matter of different analytical fields due to its high level of diversity and cultural richness, as well as its economic, political, and social turmoil. Latin America has a variety of social phenomena that speak to us about its great amount of history, interwoven by conquests, colonization, miscegenation, revolutions, war, and independence. An attempt to understand how Latin American culture is formed requires a deep analysis of what these countries have encountered throughout centuries and a synthesis of the elements that underlie their economy, language, and political ideologies.

From a political point of view, psychoanalysis gives us a well-rounded discursive theory regarding social bonds and how they work. The main psychoanalytic postulations rely on the subject's encounter with the other, the process of identification, and its inscription in a symbolic order. Therefore, a subject is considered a social subject. Such an approach helps us delve into understanding the political and socioeconomic tendencies that can be observed in a once-colonized region like Latin America as symptoms of the complexities it has overcome. In the late 1960s, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan introduced the French neologism extimité (extimacy), mainly referring to "this central place, this intimate exteriority, this extimacy, which is "the Thing" (Lacan, p. 167). He suggested that our interior is constructed, paradoxically, from the exterior: from that which is external to us and belongs to an imaginary order. We seek to identify ourselves with the other; identification is formed through alterity. This analysis seeks to integrate the theory of extimacy into a cultural perspective, investigating the fluctuation of Latin American identity, specifically from its political ideology and its identification with the external, with the foreign, and its passage into the symbolic order. How is the foreign integrated into the Latin American narrative, understanding culture as a subject of its experience with the Other?

The attempts to delimit the social realities of this region are usually based on efforts to explain the causal relationships of its political models and economic backwardness, focusing on an attempt to rebuild a society after the irruption of the Spanish Conquest and the introduction of capitalism. However, psychoanalysis theory allows us only to question the genesis of the Latin American identity through its history: how its culture is created from the psychoanalytic concept of the lack and the reality of a region conditioned by the imaginary order. What are the symptoms of Latin America's history? And, what can they teach us about the constitution of culture in society?

Figure 1: Indigenous tribes of Latin America (National Geographic, 2018).

The Latin American Subject

The construction of Latin American identity has become important through time due to its historical process and evolution. When we speak of the subject, it is implied that the human being is traversed by language, which is related to historical events and specific conditions that arise from interaction with speech; the subject is constituted in language. Social identity, then, is shaped by social practices and institutions adapted to exercise forms of power and the regulation of jouissance, a Lacanian term describing a sensation that is beyond pleasure.

The Spanish conquest unquestionably changed the indigenous culture of America by incorporating the European culture of the Old World. Thus, the construction of a society intertwining two cultures, two histories, sharing a common destiny has arisen. In less than half a century, the conquest occupied South and Central America, and universities arrived in the main capitals. The new continent is inserted into world history, under the power of European society, and indigenous America was absorbed. In other words, this new America is neither indigenous nor European, it gathers and reworks elements of both (Santiago, 2018).

In his article, El neobarroco y la identidad de la cultura latinoamericana, Santiago (2018) tells us about this new stage, where the conquerors introduced monarchy to indigenous peoples: the cities, the market, all came under the European mandate. Communities began to form, and trade (commerce) grew among them, creating a society founded on miscegenation and cultural synthesis between the two groups. This gave birth to a Baroque America, the introduction of a new culture to the world that differed from both indigenous and the European cultures but brought them both together. The Baroque speaks of complexity, excess, and ostentation. This movement is the first great manifestation of American culture that encompasses the entire region. Undoubtedly, with differences delimited by each colony, each country, but all characterized by the same thing: cultural miscegenation, a blend between Europeanism and indigenous heritage. Quoting Santiago (2018), "We could affirm that this baroque represents, in a certain way, the culmination of a process in which the physiognomy of Latin American culture is forged. What follows is nothing more than a transformation of this fundamental nucleus that results in its own reaction to Europe" (p. 120).

Figure 2: Miscegenation in Latin American Colonies (Nauta, 2021).

The American Baroque is a period marked by what is new, a historical moment in the American region of experimentation, rupture, and fundamental changes, and the transformation of a culture in its attempt to introduce the mandates of another. The divided subject is born, then, as a product of the discursive encounter between European thoughts: academic, conservative, and religious. Europe began a period of changes, called the Enlightenment movement, and a new philosophy was introduced and engrained in society, radically changing its colonies as well. With it, a hermeneutic turn towards the world came to life: thoughts and attitudes were characterized by rational criticism, where scientific studies and reason lighted the way. Enlightened modernity arose, which was not led by the European bourgeoisie but rather by a minority distinguished by its irreligiousness and education. A sort of mental dissidence occurred between the enlightened minority and the population attached to traditional systems, which opened society—in a traumatic way—to national consciousness and the idea of independence. In short, independence speaks to us of an identity crisis, where Latin America, for example, oscillates between nationalism and Europeanism. That is why, within contemporaneity, Latin America should not be studied independently of Europe nor dependently on it (Santiago, 2018). Thus, Santiago (2018) explains the following:

At the end of the 19th century, a modernist reaction against this enlightened Europeanism would emerge. It consisted of a rebellion that took up - in Spanish America - the banner of "hispanidad", as it was called in the modernist movement whose great figure was Rubén Darío. The Uruguayan José Enrique Rodó and the Argentinean Leopoldo Lugones also belonged to the same movement. These authors made a true hermeneutic turn in the understanding of Latin American identity. They recognize the need to overcome mental dependence on the dominant currents of thought and powers. While European modernism has, on the other hand, a cosmopolitan and international style. (p. 121)

This introduced what the Cuban poet Severo Sarduy named, in 1972, the Neo-Baroque: the introduction of a new culture in the world that differs from both the indigenous and the European. It is born from the crossroads of cultures, languages, and traditions, and it manifests itself through the painting, architecture, and literature of the American Baroque, the academy, as well as customs, festivities, and lifestyles, representing dissonance in contemporaneity. Even so, what is the effect of this in the political ideologies of the new republics born after the independence?

Political Ideology

We cannot speak of a unified political system throughout Latin America since, despite historical attempts, the region has never been politically nor economically integrated as one. However, the region has been characterized, with the passage of time, by continuous constitutional reforms and changes in government that represent instability in each country. In the attempt to conserve powers, political leadership, and the intention for change in and development of ideologies, the region continues to fail in stabilization. It is as if Latin America finds itself only within its symptoms: in the midst of this identity crisis. The incongruence and diversity of the political subsystems in the region is a symptom of the successive internal crises and political conflicts that do not allow political homogeneity (Dallanegra, 2003). Within the reality of their political processes, there is a disconnection between the juridical and what is manifested at a social level; constitutions become means to mobilize power. It is a system in which they play with power, and where foreigners also take part in it, leading the region through cycles of reforms and revolutions that do not end up being established (Dallanegra, 2003). Violence, protests, and coups d'états are some examples of this. Dallanegra (2003) mentions the following in his reflection, El Sistema Político Latinoamericano:

Traditionally, the Latin American political system has oscillated between the defenders of the status quo, whose criteria are closely linked to the traditional criteria of liberal ideological development, and the reformers, whose aspirations mobilize them to change in its different ranges of possibilities, be it gradual or radical. (p. 10)

Figure 3: Arrival of Francisco de Miranda to La Guaira, Venezuela (Rugendas, 2000).

The one predictable thing about this system is its instability. Dallanegra (2003) mentions three main strategies that have oscillated over the years: the conventional, the reformist, and the revolutionary. Some politicians speak of patriotic and nationalistic attitudes, while others open their doors to the foreign sector. For decades, and specifically after World War II, there was a growth in terms of social and labor laws, seeking the nationalist attitude of the Latin peoples, and at the same time, there has been a growing political tendency towards the shrinking of the State and its role, opening the economy and strengthening the private sectors. There is incoherence within the ideologies, systems, and processes, both at the political and social level, which results in the constant internal conflicts faced by the Latin American region (Garzón, 2010). These conflicts result in revolutions, extreme oppositions of roles and ideologies, and somewhat indefinite forms of corruption. Garzón (2010), quoting Žižek, offers us the following: "violence-injustice is then the act of symbolization and at the same time what eludes symbolization" (p. 1). The conflict of human beings is tied to a return of the Lacanian Real in such forms when they do not see themselves capable of symbolizing through language and, as such, of taking place in the social realm.

When we speak of ideology, we speak of the possibility of identity: the passage from identification to the symbolic order, where the subject is inserted into the social. Quoting Žižek (2004) again, "in the network of intersubjective relations, each of us is identified and attributed to a certain phantasmatic place in the symbolic structure of the other" (p. 13). From this symbolic structure, the subject shapes their vision of the world, their reality. In the end, our perception of reality is subject to fantasy, to the phantasmatic, an illusion which belongs only to the idea of something, taking no form in reality. Reality, as Lacan tells us, is not what is outside by itself, it is what the subject accepts as reality. This acceptance of reality is possible as long as it contains a certain phantasmatic level; reality itself is already ideological (Žižek, 2004). To examine the phantasmatic aspect of ideology is to underlie the identification with the symptom, this being the only way to elude the lack, the castration, which allows the subject's desire to be expressed. It acts as a force in the face of the impossibility of desire, allowing itself to be expressed in the way it sees possible. It is the subject's phantasm that becomes familiar to them in terms of their identification. However, the real encounter with this jouissance always implies displeasure, since it unbalances the homeostasis of the system—a system that pretends to maintain it in its status of the familiar. The foreign is then a familiar approach to the unheimlichkeit, and it plays a fundamental role in the development of an ideology, of a subject's ideology. The unheimlichkeit translates to the uncanny, but Freud (1919) specified that something uncanny gives us such sense when it is paradoxically, strangely familiar to us. It occurs when a fantasy, that which is phantasmatic, which is a subject's desire, is in essence hidden and unconscious, and is presented to us as real (Freud, 1919).

Figure 4: Sign of the Independence Act from the Spanish Conquest in the Great Colombia (Tovar y Tovar, 1876).


There, where the intimate is recognized, that which is put on trial within the analysis, that which leads to the analysand's cure, the most interior without ceasing to belong to the exterior, is where Lacan situates the concept of extimacy. It is that which constitutes the barred subject, divided, since their identity can only be formed within language itself, within discourse, and in short, my unconscious is the discourse of the Other, says Lacan. In other words, extimity is the Other of the signifier, outside the subject, and that which institutes the unconscious. Paradoxically, the foreign becomes the most intimate and that with which the identifying structures of the subject operate. The extimity would come to represent "the Thing" that which "is not", the unnamable of the subject's desire. Philosopher Immanuel Kant introduced what he called the thing in itself: that which is a thing in itself is not an object of the senses, since that would limit objectivity itself. It is then the logic that the thing-in-itself presents as "empty", since it escapes the perceptions of sensibility—it lacks. This frontier between phenomena—the knowledge of which is obtained by the senses—and the thing-in-itself speaks to us of the incapacity to understand everything in terms of language itself. Even so, that which is presented as empty demonstrates that it exists and the impossibility to "understand" it (Juárez-Salazar & Saettele, 2018).

From this, we can state that that which is nothing counts as something, which belongs to an in-between: between inclusion and exclusion, there is something. The subject, as Lacan narrows it down to, is this place of extimacy. Miller (2010) tells us "it is the image of the Other that defines the interior, the feeling of the interior, the feeling of its intimacy". The conscious would be a phantasmatic, imaginary formulation of how material reality is known. In an article called The Phantom Screen of Politics, Tepichin (2017) tells us that "Žižek specifies, further, with this signifier, the Subject is not simply included in the network of signifiers, but what is "included" in it is the exclusion of the Subject; it is marked, registered, signaled by the fact that this signifier has no meaning" (para. 18).

The symbolic register is based, paradoxically, on the absent signifier, through which the series of signifiers acquires coherence. It is precisely that empty signifier which lacks meaning that allows the other signifiers to be reflected by its absent character. We can say that the concept of extimacy takes on a certain meaning within the logics that shape the political realities of the subjects, finding itself in the place between the public and the private, as part of a social construction. If the intimate of the subject exists, it is because it is found within the social, it originates from society itself, from the public, from speech. For example, the language of power is based on reproducing a public discourse that contains a crack between power and the ideological fantasy that supports it. The discourse is precisely nourished by the crack itself, of which we are not aware, which allows it to be exercised and reproduced continuously. In The extimacy of the political adversary: Mythic guerrilla and psychological containment of political radicality, Juarez-Salazar and Saettele (2018) write:

Although we are situated in the symbolic universe of culture where the foundations of social construction are laid, the heavy burden of the imaginary and its identities in search of an absolute do not cease in seeking the reorganization of the political system and the symbolic system itself through the signifiers and the imaginary delimitation of political identities through meanings.

(p. 251)

Figure 5: A conga group performs during the Carnaval Infantil, or Children’s Carnaval, in Santiago de Cuba (Heisler posted by Meatto, 2021).

In other words, we no longer speak of a single link between the subject and their fellow human being, the Other; we include the symbolic universe: the signifiers that in turn, in trying to include, exclude, and punctuate the place of the foreign, the foreigner, thus forming a part of the subject themself. This is what Lacan calls "the first exteriority". Sigmund Freud explains that from the lack of the subject, from the impossibility of an absolute pleasure, culture is born. Culture that arises is a result of being faced with a demand, the foundation of the sexual drive: the lack of its jouissance. This lack is what requires the being to create new paths, to sublimate, for example, thus forming culture: a network of signifiers that have been created by and for society, with the intention of mobilizing desire from one object to another. Just like myth, any language formation is sustained by the strength of its signifiers and the organization that is made by chaining the social network. This is how the struggle between different ideologies and the heterogeneity of political systems confronts the stability of the symbolic universe of culture and, in turn, is born from it.


The Latin American subject is product of a complex historical process, characterized by its diversity and complexity. The adversities and the relationship between different historical moments which foster the being, to look for itself within the unknown, within the segregation and the rupture that it has lived in terms of his social identity. Between the old and the new, between the European and the indigenous, the traditional and the progressive, the Latin American subject does not end up identifying itself within this ambivalence but rather finds a place in the ambivalence itself; thus resulting in the instability that characterizes it within the political and socioeconomic. It would be necessary to delve much deeper into Latin American history and its evolution in terms of separate systems in order to use the similarities and differences as examples of a fluctuating system, which oscillates in its reformist and revolutionary strategies but ends up circulating within the same fall. In turn, we investigate between the theories proposed by Žižek and the psychoanalytic readings of Freud and Lacan to establish the theoretical concept of the phantasmatic, the fantasy, as we speak of ideology, specifically political ideology. This allows us to approach a psychoanalytical revision of Latin American political ideology and how its character of fantasy shapes reality. Sinking within the imaginary and its passage to the symbolic, we attempt to relate this particularity that defines the Latin American subject and its process to the passage of identification within the imaginary as well as its passage to the symbolic in terms of its political postures. How is this link made? Understanding that the subject is formed within the social and precisely the social is shaped by the subject; such analysis seeks to make the connection between a subject originated within a myth as extensive as Latin American history and the political ideologies of Latin America shaped by such subjects. In the end, we can see the difficulty this region has faced to establish a discourse in terms of the dynamics of social organization, as long as it continues to identify itself with its symptom. The symptom of Latin America seems to be its political, social, and economic instability. This is what Latin American culture is identified with. From a psychoanalytical perspective, it identifies with the strangeness that becomes familiar, precisely the symptom that reveals its desire. Extimacy, which shapes both social and political ties, allows us to examine how the external organizes the internal perceptions of the subjects. In the same way, the internal conceptualizations of the subjects tell us about their encounter with the extimacy, the foreign, that which concerns their culture.

Bibliographical References

Dallanegra, L. (2003) El Sistema Político Latinoamericano en Reflexión Política, vol. 5. Universidad Autónoma de Bucaramanga, Colombia.

Fioretti, L. (2012) Revista de la Universidad de Montevideo, XII: Extraterritorialidad y extimidad: el monolingüismo del otro como política de la lengua. National University of Córdoba, Argentina.

Freud, S. (1919) The Uncanny in The Complete Psychological Works, Vol.XVII (London: Hogarth Press 1955 & Edns.), pp.217-56.

Garzón, O. (2010) Psychoanalytic Approach: Representations of the Latin American Subject Universidad de Nariño, Colombia.

Juarez-Salazar, E., Saettele, H. (2018) The extimacy of the political adversary. Mythical guerrilla and psychological containment of political radicality in Revista de Historia de las Ideas Políticas, Madrid.

Miller, J.-A. (2010) Extimacy. 1st ed.- Paidós. Buenos Aires, Argentina

Santiago, D.M. (2018) El neobarroco y la identidad de la cultura latinoamericana. Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires, República Argentina.

Tepichin, P. (2017) The Phantom Screen of Politics

Žižek, S. (2004) Enjoy your symptom! Jacques Lacan in and out of Hollywood. Buenos Aires, Argentina.

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Gabriella Yanes

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